Attorney General William Barr repeatedly sniped at Robert Mueller’s investigation during tense Senate testimony on Wednesday, revealing deep disagreements between the special counsel and an attorney general who has endeared himself to President Donald Trump.
In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr repeatedly questioned Mueller’s 22-month probe and contradicted the language and legal framework outlined in Mueller’s report. He went so far as to describe a letter Mueller wrote expressing concern over Barr’s depiction of his report as “snitty.”
The attorney general testified after it was revealed that the special counsel had twice pressed Barr to speed the release of his report’s summaries and introductions to Congress and the public.
Barr offered his most direct criticisms of the Mueller probe to date, suggesting he wasn’t sure why the special counsel investigated numerous instances of potential obstruction of justice if he decided he couldn’t charge Trump with a crime under Justice Department restrictions.
“The other thing that was confusing to me was that the investigation carried on for a while as additional episodes [of obstruction] were looked into,” Barr said. “The question is, or was, why were those investigated at the end of the day if you weren’t going to reach a decision?”
At times, Barr engaged in hair-splitting arguments with Democrats who accused him of “purposefully misleading” Congress in previous testimony. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) at one point appeared to trip Barr up when she asked if the president or any White House official had asked or suggested the attorney general to open an investigation into anyone.
Some Democrats even called for the attorney general to resign, including Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who drew a rebuke from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the panel.
“I gave you seven minutes and you slandered this man from top to bottom,” Graham said.
Barr also said that if Mueller had found enough evidence to charge the president with obstruction, he would have noted it in his report.
“If [Mueller] had found enough evidence for an obstruction charge, I think he would state it,” Barr said.
But Barr’s answers directly contradict the rationale Mueller laid out in his report. Mueller indicated in a legal analysis of obstruction of justice that “fairness” dictated he not reach a formal judgment on whether the president obstructed justice — regardless of the evidence.
Because the Justice Department prohibits indicting a sitting president, Mueller noted, suggesting Trump committed obstruction would unfairly taint his presidency and leave him without a legal recourse to clear his name.
Similarly, Mueller indicated that he pursued obstruction allegations against Trump, despite his inability to charge him, because presidents could be indicted after leaving office.
“While the [DOJ] opinion concludes that a sitting president may not be prosecuted, it recognizes that a criminal investigation during the president’s term is permissible,” Mueller wrote. “The … opinion also recognizes that a president does not have immunity after he leaves office.”
Barr also expressed his expansive views of the power of the presidency, telling senators that a commander-in-chief has the right to thwart or terminate an investigation that is found to be “a groundless proceeding, or based on false allegations.”
“The president could terminate that proceeding and it would not be a corrupt intent because he was being falsely accuse,” the attorney general said.
Barr took another shot at Mueller when he said the Justice Department was “not in the business of exonerating.” It was a veiled reference to the obstruction section of Mueller’s report, which stated: “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Barr ultimately decided to include that sentence in his four-page summary.
Later in the hearing, Barr appeared to question whether the Trump campaign sought to benefit from information that was stolen by a foreign power. But Mueller wrote in his report that the Trump campaign “expected it would benefit electorally” from such information. Barr also pushed back on Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) when he said the campaign shared information with a “foreign adversary,” a reference to former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort sharing polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian with suspected ties to Russian intelligence.
Barr’s comments came after House lawmakers Wednesday morning released Mueller’s March 27 letter asking Barr to release the report’s summaries and introductions publicly, warning “public misunderstandings” threatened to undermine confidence in the Russia probe.
In the letter, Mueller revealed that he pressed Barr to make elements of his report public on March 25 — a day after Mueller finalized his report — and urged Barr to do so again. But Barr ultimately kept the report secret for nearly a month, reviewing it for several categories of information to redact — and he made no indication to Congress or the public that Mueller disagreed with his handling of the report.
The letter was made public just as Barr arrived on Capitol Hill for the first of two days of testimony on Mueller’s findings amid a barrage of criticism about his decision to publicly characterize the findings of Mueller’s 22-month probe before making it public and to do so in a way that Mueller felt contributed to public misunderstanding.